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So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star? An interview with Nick Kent

March 12, 2012

It’s exactly 15 years since we last talked to Nick. Then he was celebrating the publication of his first book ‘The Dark Stuff’, collected writings about rock’n’roll drawn from the NME and other music magazines.  Today in the august Bloomsbury offices of Faber & Faber Nick is promoting his new book – an autobiography from the 70’s entitled ‘Apathy For The Devil’, the title derived from a criticism of the Stones made by Bob Dylan to Ian Hunter (I preferred the working title of ‘Dead Fop Walking’). Nick is fresh off the Eurostar from Paris where he has lived since quitting drugs and London in 1988. He looks every centimetre the French bohemian as he strokes his goatee and explains why he wrote his book.

“What I wanted was a book on the 70’s and a book that was autobiographical  so I blended them together. The 70’s to me started with Marc Bolan or the creation of Ziggy Stardust and ended with the death  of the Sex Pistols. My past seemed to break down into three distinct stages when I was three very different people. In my early life I was just a nice-enough kid. Then around 1973 when the fame happened and the success and the drugs started kicking in I became someone very different, someone I found hard to recognise when I moved out of that stage. The third phase started in May 1988 when I moved to Paris.”

“I remembered everything. It wasn’t that unpleasant to get it all down on paper. It was as close to enjoyable as work gets. I set myself a target of 750 words a day. I’d helped Keith Richards a little bit with his autobiography. James Fox got in touch with me and said that Keith doesn’t remember the 70’s, in much the same way that I don’t remember the 80’s. I think the 70’s were a very gloomy period for him. He remembers his childhood well, he remembers the 60’s very well but the 70’s wasn’t a good period for him – ‘Exile’ got made but apart from that pretty bleak times – he had a big problem with Anita Pallenberg, a big problem with people around him, his relationship with Jagger broke down. James said I’ve got this deadline so I’ve got to write 750 words every day. So that’s what I did, five or six days a week. It was almost pleasurable to write the first few years but less so from 1978 when I didn’t like the music.“

“I read a bunch of autobiographies and the only one that really made sense to me was the Dylan Chronicles where he chronicles the presence and absence of his muse. If anyone could have written a book that said ‘I invented the 60’s’ Dylan was that man, and he could have done that but it wouldn’t have been a great piece of literature. So he went the opposite way which really impressed me. What he was writing about was his talent. I felt the same. I felt I had built up to 1975, there was an advance in my writing and then it just…went. So for half the period I was writing about I was in a bad way.”

“I’ve not been tempted by heroin or cocaine since 1988.When I stopped taking drugs I became healthy – I was walking a lot, then in the early 90’s I started lifting weights to prevent a bad back so I’ve looked after myself. I just was so glad not to feel ill any more.” A recent blood test suggests that Nick had unknowingly contracted Hepatitis C and then lost it again. “According to James Fox the same thing happened to Keith Richards – he had it and then lost it of his own accord. Apparently only 10% of people who get this ailment ever lose it. So that’s how lucky I’ve been.”

“I do have a faith in something bigger. I very much believe in karma. In the last 22 years I’ve never had any real health problems but my wife Laurence developed a very bad case of alcoholism that went on for about 7 years. I’ve never been a drinker. Alcohol can bring the complete Jekyll and Hyde transformation, complete screaming insanity whereas heroin addiction is a slow diminution of human potential. On heroin people become pathetic, but they don’t become dangerous. For the last four years she’s been fine, she doesn’t drink but at the time the only way I could deal with it was to say ‘this is my karma – for 14 years I was a junkie’. My parents were deeply offended by it, there were people who cared about me who were deeply upset and hurt by it and this is the payback. I have to stay and do this – I can’t just walk away. I have to protect this woman however unpleasant it is.”

“For the last 22 years I’ve been very family-orientated, I’m not someone who goes out to nightclubs, I don’t have an interest in that any more. I don’t respect men who sleep around when they’ve got a wife and kids at home, never did. The happiest period of my life was when my son was little. You get the joy. I got a certain amount of joy from listening to the Beatles on the radio when I was a kid, but you don’t know real joy until you’ve had a child and you’ve had good relationship with that child. Some people give birth to kids who are just a pain in the arse. I was lucky in that my son James is a really good kid. He thinks I’m cool. Until he was eleven I was the one who picked him up from school, made his food – I was the parent in our family. When he was twelve I stepped back – his mother was coming out of her long period with her problems so she stepped in more. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen you want to separate yourself from your parents and that’s what he’s been doing. He’s just turned seventeen and he’s a really good guitarist, mainly into extreme metal. I’d rather he went his own way rather than blindly following me.”

There is very little Nick Kent on the internet, apart from an interesting interview with Karl Whitney at No, no MySpace page and definitely no Twitter-ing. “I’m more interested in morality than technology. The internet just doesn’t interest me – I’m not someone who’s drawn to technology. The last ten years has been a time when technology has dominated and I just don’t feel excited about the whole thing. With the internet now everyone is a journalist but they’re not very good.“

“In the 70’s rock had no concept of morality or dealing with the consequences. ‘Fuck the consequences, just snort the drug and then whatever happens is right.’ That is partly what my new book is about. I see the 70’s as a dispirited, bankrupt period. The late 60’s was all utopianism, the idea that the audience and the musicians were on an equal footing, In the 70’s that all changed, people started paying far too much attention to what Andy Warhol was saying, and I don’t think even Andy Warhol took what he was saying as seriously as did the people around him. In the 70’s you didn’t talk about morality or even question anything. Snort the cocaine, stand around and babble for a while…there was a lot of flaky behaviour and I was as much to blame as anyone. “

Trust the art not the artist: discuss. “Miles Davies was not a nice man. I wouldn’t describe myself as a nice person. I wasn’t someone you could trust or who you could have confidence in. That’s what happens when you take Iggy Pop as your role-model. But in order to do the job I’d been sent to do by the NME I had to throw caution to the winds. I got to know Iggy pretty well and one thing I noticed that his every day alter-ego Jim Osterbeg was a very cautious human being. My father was cautious, I’m cautious, my son is cautious. I realised that in order to really go for this rock thing that was happening I had to cast caution to the winds, which is what happened when Iggy went on stage. He hurt himself badly lots of times but this is what he had to do. His artistic lesson was if you’re going to have an adventure then you go all the way. You don’t think ‘maybe I’ll hurt this persons feelings or maybe I’ll hurt myself physically’. You’re causing a lot of problems for yourself and other people if you behave like that. It’s a two-edged sword – you can get hurt by it.”

The articles that made up ‘The Dark Stuff’ were considerably rewritten from how they had appeared originally. How come ? “I feel that the articles are now better considered and more to the point about those people than anything I wrote at the time. Plus there were libel laws. I pushed it as far as I could go at the time but even so there was no way I could write about what really happened with the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin – there was a lot of drug taking and a lot of crazy days. Twenty or thirty years down the line is the time to write properly about it. “

Since writing The Dark Stuff Nick has been busy. ”Up until 2007 I had a column for the French newspaper Liberation. Until 1997 I was also working for French TV. I started working for Rapido, which showed me how TV programmes are put together and I knew I could do all aspects except maybe the presenting. Then I was asked me to do a fortnightly show called Rock Express where I could go with a camera to virtually any gig that was happening in Paris and film the best part with a bit of an interview added. The 90’s was a good period to do that – Cobain, acid-house, Blur, Oasis, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley. Then I directed a couple of documentaries for Canal, one on Oasis. But I don’t like my face to be included. I’ve been interviewed a couple of times on TV – once about the NME and once about Hawkwind. Hawkwind  were the housegroup of Friendz, the first magazine I worked for. They were (mostly) nice guys – Lemmy is very funny, but Dave Brock is like the Bill Wyman of the group which is to say he was someone from a different era.”

Nick writes movingly in ‘Apathy…” of his relationship with his mother and father. “My parents didn’t like any hint of decadence – my father in particular felt that the Germans had fallen into decadence which ultimately lead to the Second World War. I think I frightened my parents. They never disowned me but I’d only see them once a year at Christmas, staying two or three days. We were just so different. My father read ‘The Dark Stuff’ and liked it. He could see I’d become a good writer although he didn’t know any of the people I was writing about. My grandfather and father ware both loners, it’s a Kent family trait on the male side – not a bad thing if you want to be a writer.”

“In the early 50’s the coming of television changed everything. Rock’n’roll was starting to come into the picture – going from Light Classical music to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ or particularly in my case ‘My Generation’ – instantly you hated it or loved it. That’s what rock did. At first the people from my parents generation who were controlling the media in the 60’s said ‘this is just short attention span bullshit – it’s for young people, they don’t have a war to fight, they are not cannon fodder any more so we’ll allow it but let’s not kid ourselves that this stuff has got any lasting value’. I felt otherwise – it just completely grabbed me. I knew that much of this stuff would stand the march of time. I always felt the Stooges, MC5, Velvets and the Groovies would have their day. It was incredibly depressing at the time when Jethro Tull were selling 35 million records in America and the Stooges couldn’t get a record deal. But at the same time the Dolls and the Stooges created their own fate. The Dolls could have been Aerosmith but they fucked up, they were too erratic.”

“I don’t mind the Stones still being on the road – I think they are playing really well and that Jagger is performing a lot better now than in the ‘70s. I don’t go to the gigs any more, I wait until they put out a DVD and watch that. They invited me to the Paris Olympia club gig – pretty good, but now  I think now they work better in big places. The Stones used to be very erratic, if you saw the Stones in rehearsal and Keith Richards wasn’t in the mood you saw a really bad pub-rock band. The Stooges were the same. They used to be either sub-human or super-human, usually depending on the state of the singer.”

“The Feelgoods were important. I was the first person to see them live and write about them, even before they got their ‘look’ together. Wilko told me their image changed after they played the Wembley 1972 Rock’n’Roll Festival. The MC5 came on and got booed off stage but Wilko saw them. Wayne Kramer had on this weird face paint and he was wearing a black suit to set it off. Wilko just stole the suit. One number I really loved was ’I’m A Hog For You Baby’ where Wilko’s one-note guitar solo captured their very essence.”

“Apathy…’ contains much about the Stones and Led Zeppelin but little about the Who – how come? “I never met Townsend. I spent an evening with John Entwistle and there’s a bit in the new book about an experience I had with Keith Moon but Townsend was the main guy. In recent years I’ve become very fond of them and I see them as very important band. They changed rock’n’roll to Rock through their volume and feedback. It was unfortunate that when I started writing they were in their concept album stage and Townsend became very pretentious.”

Alex Chilton told me that he likes writers until he reads what they have written about them. Has Nick had a similar experience? “A lot of people I have written about are no longer favourably disposed towards me. To me a friend is someone you turn to in times of strife. Iggy was a friend – we’d phone each other up, have long talks. I wouldn’t call Radiohead friends but I get on well with them. I’ve spent time together with Jimmy Page in the last five years. Bobby Gillespie, Evan Dando have turned up on my doorstep but they are not guys I would write about – better if I don’t. When I first meet people there is a honeymoon period like with the Smiths – Johnny Marr and Morrissey were all over me ‘tell us about the New York Dolls’. Someone like Morrissey has his own self-image of a righteous person at war with the rest of the world who just don’t understand ‘I am unloved, I am unloveable, it’s very hard being me’. He doesn’t get that there are some aspects of his character which if you’re an onlooker…there’s so much vanity. As much as the drugs in the 70’s the level of vanity tainted the musicians of that time. “

In ‘Apathy…’ Nick talks about his ambitions as a musician. Does he miss playing live? “I haven’t been on stage as a musician since the end of my band the Subterraneans in the early 80’s. Recently Chrissie Hynde asked me to play guitar with her on ‘Dark Globe’ at a Syd Barrett tribute gig, I said ‘no fucking way”. I’ve been doing book tours where 200 people turn up, it starts off with me doing a reading and then someone asks me questions. That to me is performing. When I stopped the drugs I wanted to focus purely on writing so I stopped playing the guitar which up until then I’d been playing about 8 hours a day and really enjoying it. My birthday is December 24th so one year my wife bought me a Christmas/Birthday present of a nice acoustic guitar. Shortly after that she fell into this alcoholic state. Just to deal with the stress I started playing again and very quickly songs started coming to me – complete songs with lyrics. They were beautiful songs. I recorded them on a tape recorder – several French musicians with home studios said come down and cut them but I never wanted to do that because they were so personal. I just wish it had happened to me earlier when I was serious about becoming a professional musician.”

What’s next ? A novel, the same half-finished novel Nick mentioned in our first interview. “Vince Taylor’s story has an influence on it. Vince Taylor was big in France and I met the president of his fan-club, who lived in Switzerland. Vince Taylor just turned up on this guys doorstep, in a bad way, he had no money, was completely insane and just lived with him. Bad things happened to this poor guy who was putting him up – his dog ran away, his wife left him. You take the idea of what would happen if your biggest hero turned up out of the blue, knocked at the door and said ‘help – let me in’. For example if Syd Barrett just turned up, what will happen? Is it the answer to your dreams or the start of a nightmare? The book has taken so long to write because I wanted to finish the story before I sold it, which is not a good idea with me because it means there is no deadline.”

“I want to be writing to the very end but for the last ten years music hasn’t been interesting enough to make me want to write about it. Most of the music magazines now write mainly about the past and I am not interested in doing that. However I was thinking about doing an article on The Move, the original five piece who were so great.”

Nick Kent, still passionate about the music that matters to him. Long may he run.


From → Interviews, Media, Music

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